Dones out at KCRHA
King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) CEO Marc Dones announced on May 16 that they would resign from their position. Deputy CEO Helen Howell will serve as interim CEO while a search to replace Dones begins.
In their work as a consultant, Dones helped build the idea of KCRHA, which was formally created in 2019 with the signing of an interlocal agreement between the city of Seattle and King County. That agreement committed the city and county to putting money used in their respective responses to homelessness into the new organization tasked with creating a regional response to the crisis.
Dones became KCRHA’s first CEO in 2021 but was not authority leaders’ first choice. That leadership voted to approve another candidate for the role at the beginning of February 2021, which was already late in the day; according to the Seattle Times, the organization was supposed to have a leader nearly five months before. Within weeks of that announcement, the candidate turned the job down.
The organization selected Dones a month later, and they began the job at the end of April.
In a recent report, the authority touted successes at getting people experiencing homelessness into housing through targeted efforts such as the Partnership for Zero, which focused on visible homelessness in downtown Seattle, and the state’s Right of Way Initiative, which was meant to move people out of properties controlled by the Washington State Department of Transportation.
However, it has also been plagued with problems, including repeated late payments to contractors, tensions over approaches to policies on topics such as tiny houses and a political rejection of its five-year plan, which included an eye-popping price tag: $11.8 billion. The figure far overshadowed the agency’s budget, which hit approximately $250 million in 2023.
Under Dones, KCRHA promised big changes to regional solutions to homelessness. It fundamentally changed the methodology of the federally required point-in-time count; promised to integrate people with lived experience of homelessness into its decision and policymaking; and aimed to rebid the entire homelessness services system, a process that was supposed to take place this summer.
Electeds and organizational leaders involved with KCRHA sent public statements thanking Dones for their work and wishing them well. However, Seattle Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who is also a member of the organization’s governing committee, said in the Seattle Times that leadership must “have honest conversations” about changes to KCRHA’s structure.
Blake ‘fix’ passes Legislature
The Washington Legislature spent almost no time in its special session, approving legislation to criminalize public drug use and possession in the state. The bill makes that conduct a gross misdemeanor — a harsher standard than many advocates and more left-wing politicians wanted.
Senate Bill 5536 passed with significant support from Democrats and Republicans. It makes drug possession — excluding cannabis — and public drug use gross misdemeanors punishable by 180 days in jail or $1,000. However, if a person has two or more convictions for possession or public drug use racked up after the bill is implemented, they can face up to 364 days in jail.
The bill, as passed, is replete with references to prosecutorial discretion, saying that prosecutors are “encouraged to divert such cases for assessment, treatment, or other services.” Similarly, law enforcement is also “encouraged” to offer referral to assessment and services “in lieu of jail booking and referral to the prosecutor.”
SB 5536 also released approximately $44 million in funding for various treatment options and services. That money is split over a number of programs, including $3.6 million for community grants, $5.2 million in housing supports and $2 million for behavioral health co-responders, among others.
In a state with a severe lack of mental health beds and substance abuse treatment options, it isn’t much money. King County voters alone passed a levy that will raise $1.25 billion over nine years to build five crisis care centers which are effectively drop-in centers meant to help people with acute, immediate mental health crises, including substance use disorders.
Proponents of the bill celebrated its passage, saying that it offered options for accountability as well as treatment. Opponents decry it for increasing the criminal penalties on individuals who use drugs in public.
In a Medium post, Gov. Jay Inslee said that the law was meant to fill treatment centers and not jails and that it gave communities local control but would not result in a “patchwork” of laws across the state. It is unclear how either of those objectives will be achieved if communities do not have the cash to open treatment centers and local control gives prosecutors and law enforcement discretion to refer people to services or not.
Seattle’s budget woes
It feels like only yesterday that the Seattle City Council finished a bruising budget season, sealing a $140 million gap with money from its tax on big businesses. According to the City Budget Office, councilmembers don’t have long before they do it all over again.
The good news for the city is that staff found another $31.8 million in the couch cushions for 2023. The bad news for the city is that the average operating deficit for the general fund — the source of flexible dollars through which many key services are funded — will jump from $212 million to $224 million per year in 2025 and 2026. The gap reflects inflation-related increases in spending that exceed revenues, according to a memo by council central staff.
The updated forecasts include revenue shortfalls in the JumpStart Fund — the aforementioned tax on big business — and reduction measures “will have implications for [the JumpStart Fund’s] ability to support equity investments at levels envisioned when the tax was passed in 2020.”
The JumpStart Fund was meant to add services above and beyond those already funded by the city to support marginalized communities and included explicit language to prevent raids on the fund by the executive. That was done, in part, to secure support for the tax in the first place. One criticism of a previous tax on business, the Employee Head Tax, was that councilmembers weren’t specific enough about how the money would be used.
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Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News.
Read more of the May 24-30, 2023 issue.